Racking up European Film Awards aplenty back in 2010, The Ghost Writer was initially considered a mini-masterpiece from Polish-French director Roman Polanski. Adapted from the contestable novel The Ghost from Robert Harris (also co-writer of the film’s screenplay), the movie explores the familiar Polanski themes of deceit, murder, and intrigue. What is strikingly missing however is the palpable suspense which made films such as The Pianist and Rosemary’s Baby so beguiling. The result is a stuffy, verbose political thriller which will bore you into submission with arduous chatting, and chatting, and then more chatting.
It all starts as an enigma. An unnamed writer (Ewan McGregor) is interviewed for the job offer of a lifetime: ghostwriting the memoirs of retired British Prime Minister,
Tony Blair Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan). What makes this prospect even more dreamy is that most of the leg-work is already done, with an almost-complete manuscript put together by the previous ghost writer Mike McAra, a devoted aide at Lang’s side who has mysteriously drowned in the weeks prior.
Flying to the old PM’s hideout in Cape Cod, the new Ghost gets to reading the 700 page document. Locked away in Lang’s office, it contains nothing that sensational, in fact, it even sends the Ghost to sleep. Writer’s blocked, the Ghost is shaken when news breaks that Lang is under investigation for war crimes, such as subterfuge and the waterboarding of captured terrorists. The once dormant writer is now right in the middle of political warfare, with Lang’s political advisor Amelia (Kim Cattrall), insidious wife Ruth (Olivia Williams) and shifty old friend Paul (Tom Wilkinson) confusing matters even further.
For such an immensely heavy thriller, The Ghost Writer needed to have a pace which keeps audiences gripped but never in doubt of the political subtext. Revelations need not necessarily come quickly, but questions need to be asked and the answers must seem important. Testament to Polanski’s filmmaking chops, he manages to keep the first third punchy, exploring the depth of the characters on a level which is extensive yet far from overzealous.
That’s until we get to the middle, which is nothing short of a slog. More time focused on mirroring 2003 invasion of Iraq by America and it’s submissive comrade the UK, rather than tell a compelling, filmic story. It all feels too detailed, too literary and un-cinematic.
Most closely resembling 1974’s Chinatown, there’s a bunch of funny quips and one-liners, yet The Ghost Writer never serves humor or suspense in a pleasant way. It takes itself too seriously to be funny, and there’s too much humor to really take it seriously.
McGregor does his best with an implausibly wordy script, handling the wry jokes and an East-London accent well; and just about keeping our interest throughout. Brosnan is entertaining too as the smarmy former prime minister, up until the layers of the grinning veneer are shattered and he hams up the bravado. Worst of all is Kim Cattrall, the snooty right-hand lady with a distractingly bad English accent. Somewhat unsurprisingly, thespian Olivia Williams is just the tonic the material needs, playing the former first lady with poise and undermining conceit, dominating the screen whenever Polanski let’s her steps in.
Just as densely political as The Ghost Writer‘s storyline was it’s precocious post-production. Extradited from the USA, Polanski had to shoot the production in Germany, edit the film whilst under house arrest and was even unable to attend the film’s world premiere at the Berlinale festival*. Although these factors never infiltrate the narrative of The Ghost Writer, the political commentary contained is undermined by the filmmaker’s own personal plight.
Resulting in a LOLLERCOASTER of a bad ending, The Ghost Writer moves from initially gripping, to confusing, to downright silly with great fluidity. Matched with the invasive score from composer Alexandre Desplat, it’s a hyped-up movie which ultimately disappoints. Polanski can keep the awards and accolades but, just like his despicable past, the least said about The Ghost Writer, the better.
*For the uninitiated – Polanski pleaded guilty for rape of a thirteen-year-old girl back in 1978 but had never fulfilled the initial arrest warrant. Although he has made some of the most significant world cinema films of the last fifty years, Polanski is evidently one vile human being.